I saw this photograph…

When doing some research for another story:

And a thought popped into my head. What if that was a gateway to another dimension, or just a gateway to hell. Or, since my mood wasn’t leaning towards death and mayhem, what if it was the entrance to a new world, one where troubles could be left behind?

All you have to do is cross that bridge.

IT could be like hundreds of others scattered over the United States, simply a bridge crossing a stream. Why did someone build over it? Was there a reason?

Delving into the mysteries of covered bridges there are among no doubt many two that I found. The first, so that the bridge timbers underneath didn’t rot, and the second, since it looked like a barn, animals would not hesitate to walk under and cross the bridge.

So, if it was me, out on a motoring holiday, somewhere in New England where there are a number of these bridges, I’d stop and take a look. First, to see what was on the other side, probably more forest as the road heads into the mountains, then walk through, tasking that first tentative step to see if anything happened.

What would I be expecting? A tingling sensation, a momentary blank, like losing consciousness for a fraction of a second, and coming to without any apparent change of scenery. Perhaps it might be a time warp, and stepping off at the other side sends me back in time, or maybe forward in time.

Or would I get a feeling of elation, that I had made it to the other side, but without being able to define what the other side was.

Or would I be filled with dread, and run back to the car and drive away as fast as I could?

The possibilities are endless.

An excerpt from “One Last Look”: Charlotte is no ordinary girl

This is currently available at Amazon herehttp://amzn.to/2CqUBcz

 

I’d read about out of body experiences, and like everyone else, thought it was nonsense.  Some people claimed to see themselves in the operating theatre, medical staff frantically trying to revive them, and being surrounded by white light.

I was definitely looking down, but it wasn’t me I was looking at.

It was two children, a boy and a girl, with their parents, in a park.

The boy was Alan.  He was about six or seven.  The girl was Louise, and she was five years old.  She had long red hair and looked the image of her mother.

I remember it now, it was Louise’s birthday and we went down to Bournemouth to visit our Grandmother, and it was the last time we were all together as a family.

We were flying homemade kites our father had made for us, and after we lay there looking up at the sky, making animals out of the clouds.  I saw an elephant, Louise saw a giraffe.

We were so happy then.

Before the tragedy.

 

When I looked again ten years had passed and we were living in hell.  Louise and I had become very adept at survival in a world we really didn’t understand, surrounded by people who wanted to crush our souls.

It was not a life a normal child had, our foster parents never quite the sort of people who were adequately equipped for two broken-hearted children.  They tried their best, but their best was not good enough.

Every day it was a battle, to avoid the Bannister’s and Archie in particular, every day he made advances towards Louise and every day she fended him off.

Until one day she couldn’t.

Now I was sitting in the hospital, holding Louise’s hand.  She was in a coma, and the doctors didn’t think she would wake from it.  The damage done to her was too severe.

The doctors were wrong.

She woke, briefly, to name her five assailants.  It was enough to have them arrested.  It was not enough to have them convicted.

Justice would have to be served by other means.

 

I was outside the Bannister’s home.

I’d made my way there without really thinking, after watching Louise die.  It was like being on autopilot, and I had no control over what I was doing.  I had murder in mind.  It was why I was holding an iron bar.

Skulking in the shadows.  It was not very different from the way the Bannister’s operated.

I waited till Archie came out.  I knew he eventually would.  The police had taken him to the station for questioning, and then let him go.  I didn’t understand why, nor did I care.

I followed him up the towpath, waiting till he stopped to light a cigarette, then came out of the shadows.

“Wotcha got there Alan?” he asked when he saw me.  He knew what it was, and what it was for.

It was the first time I’d seen the fear in his eyes.  He was alone.

“Justice.”

“For that slut of a sister of yours.  I had nuffing to do with it.”

“She said otherwise, Archie.”

“She never said nuffing, you just made it up.”  An attempt at bluster, but there was no confidence in his voice.

I held up the pipe.  It had blood on it.  Willy’s blood.  “She may or may not have Archie, but Willy didn’t make it up.  He sang like a bird.  That’s his blood, probably brains on the pipe too, Archie, and yours will be there soon enough.”

“He dunnit, not me.  Lyin’ bastard would say anything to save his own skin.”  Definitely scared now, he was looking to run away.

“No, Archie.  He didn’t.  I’m coming for you.  All of you Bannisters.  And everyone who touched my sister.”

 

It was the recurring nightmare I had for years afterwards.

I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the thoughts, the images of Louise, the phone call, the visit to the hospital and being there when she succumbed to her injuries.  Those were the very worst few hours of my life.

She had asked me to come to the railway station and walk home with her, and I was running late.  If I had left when I was supposed to, it would never have happened and for years afterwards, I blamed myself for her death.

If only I’d not been late…

When the police finally caught the rapists, I’d known all along who they’d be; antagonists from school, the ring leader, Archie Bannister, a spurned boyfriend, a boy whose parents, ubiquitously known to all as ‘the Bannister’s, dealt in violence and crime and who owned the neighbourhood.  The sins of the father had been very definitely passed onto the son.

At school, I used to be the whipping boy, Archie, a few grades ahead of me, made a point of belting me and a few of the other boys, to make sure the rest did as they were told.  He liked Louise, but she had no time for a bully like him, even when he promised he would ‘protect’ me.

I knew the gang members, the boys who tow-kowed to save getting beaten up, and after the police couldn’t get enough information to prosecute them because everyone was too afraid to speak out, I went after Willy.  There was always a weak link in a group, and he was it.

He worked in a factory, did long hours on a Wednesday and came home after dark alone.  It was a half mile walk, through a park.  The night I approached him, I smashed the lights and left it in darkness.  He nearly changed his mind and went the long way home.

He didn’t.

It took an hour and a half to get the names.  At first, when he saw me, he laughed.  He said I would be next, and that was four words more than he knew he should have said.

When I found him alone the next morning I showed him the iron bar and told him he was on the list.  I didn’t kill him then, he could wait his turn, and worry about what was going to happen to him.

When the police came to visit me shortly after that encounter, no doubt at the behest of the Bannister’s, the neighbourhood closed ranks and gave me an ironclad alibi.  The Bannister’s then came to visit me and threatened me.  I told them their days were numbered and showed them the door.

At the trial, he and his friends got off on a technicality.  The police had failed to do their job properly, but it was not the police, but a single policeman, corrupted by the Bannisters.

Archie could help but rub it in my face.  He was invincible.

Joe Collins took 12 bullets and six hours to bleed out.  He apologized, he pleaded, he cried, he begged.  I didn’t care.

Barry Mills, a strong lad with a mind to hurting people, Archie’s enforcer, almost got the better of me.  I had to hit him more times than I wanted to, and in the end, I had to be satisfied that he died a short but agonizing death.

I revisited Willy in the hospital.  He’d recovered enough to recognize me, and why I’d come.  Suffocation was too good for him.

David Williams, second in command of the gang, was as tough and nasty as the Bannisters.  His family were forging a partnership with the Bannister’s to make them even more powerful.  Outwardly David was a pleasant sort of chap, affable, polite, and well mannered.  A lot of people didn’t believe he could be like, or working with, the Bannisters.

He and I met in the pub.  We got along like old friends.  He said Willy had just named anyone he could think of, and that he was innocent of any charges.  We shook hands and parted as friends.

Three hours later he was sitting in a chair in the middle of a disused factory, blindfolded and scared.  I sat and watched him, listened to him, first threatening me, and then finally pleading with me.  He’d guessed who it was that had kidnapped him.

When it was dark, I took the blindfold off and shone a very bright light in his eyes.  I asked him if the violence he had visited upon my sister was worth it.  He told me he was just a spectator.

I’d read the coroner’s report.  They all had a turn.  He was a liar.

He took nineteen bullets to die.

Then came Archie.

The same factory only this time there were four seats.  Anna Bannister, brothel owner, Spike Bannister, head of the family, Emily Bannister, sister, and who had nothing to do with their criminal activities.  She just had the misfortune of sharing their name.

Archie’s father told me how he was going to destroy me, and everyone I knew.

A well-placed bullet between the eyes shut him up.

Archie’s mother cursed me.  I let her suffer for an hour before I put her out of her misery.

Archie remained stony-faced until I came to Emily.  The death of his parents meant he would become head of the family.  I guess their deaths meant as little to him as they did me.

He was a little more worried about his sister.

I told him it was confession time.

He told her it was little more than a forced confession and he had done nothing to deserve my retribution.

I shrugged and shot her, and we both watched her fall to the ground screaming in agony.  I told him if he wanted her to live, he had to genuinely confess to his crimes.  This time he did, it all poured out of him.

I went over to Emily.  He watched in horror as I untied her bindings and pulled her up off the floor, suffering only from a small wound in her arm.  Without saying a word she took the gun and walked over to stand behind him.

“Louise was my friend, Archie.  My friend.”

Then she shot him.  Six times.

To me, after saying what looked like a prayer, she said, “Killing them all will not bring her back, Alan, and I doubt she would approve of any of this.  May God have mercy on your soul.”

 

Now I was in jail.  I’d spent three hours detailing the deaths of the five boys, everything I’d done; a full confession.  Without my sister, my life was nothing.  I didn’t want to go back to the foster parents; I doubt they’d take back a murderer.

They were not allowed to.

For a month I lived in a small cell, in solitary, no visitors.  I believed I was in the queue to be executed, and I had mentally prepared myself for the end.

Then I was told I had a visitor, and I was expecting a priest.

Instead, it was a man called McTavish. Short, wiry, and with an accent that I could barely understand.

“You’ve been a bad boy, Alan.”

When I saw it was not the priest I told the jailers not to let him in, I didn’t want to speak to anyone.  They ignored me.  I’d expected he was a psychiatrist, come to see whether I should be shipped off to the asylum.

I was beginning to think I was going mad.

I ignored him.

“I am the difference between you living or dying Alan, it’s as simple as that.  You’d be a wise man to listen to what I have to offer.”

Death sounded good.  I told him to go away.

He didn’t.  Persistent bugger.

I was handcuffed to the table.  The prison officers thought I was dangerous.  Five, plus two, murders, I guess they had a right to think that.  McTavish sat opposite me, ignoring my request to leave.

“Why’d you do it?”

“You know why.”  Maybe if I spoke he’d go away.

“Your sister.  By all accounts, the scum that did for her deserved what they got.”

“It was murder just the same.  No difference between scum and proper people.”

“You like killing?”

“No-one does.”

“No, I dare say you’re right.  But you’re different, Alan.  As clean and merciless killing I’ve ever seen.  We can use a man like you.”

“We?”

“A group of individuals who clean up the scum.”

I looked up to see his expression, one of benevolence, totally out of character for a man like him.  It looked like I didn’t have a choice.

 

Trained, cleared, and ready to go.

I hadn’t realized there were so many people who were, for all intents and purposes, invisible.  People that came and went, in malls, in hotels, trains, buses, airports, everywhere, people no one gave a second glance.

People like me.

In a mall, I became a shopper.

In a hotel, I was just another guest heading to his room.

On a bus or a train, I was just another commuter.

At the airport, I became a pilot.  I didn’t need to know how to fly; everyone just accepted a pilot in a pilot suit was just what he looked like.

I had a passkey.

I had the correct documents to get me onto the plane.

That walk down the air bridge was the longest of my life.  Waiting for the call from the gate, waiting for one of the air bridge staff to challenge me, stepping onto the plane.

Two pilots and a steward.  A team.  On the plane early before the rest of the crew.  A group that was committing a crime, had committed a number of crimes and thought they’d got away with it.

Until the judge, the jury and their executioner arrived.

Me.

Quick, clean, merciless.  Done.

I was now an operational field agent.

 

I was older now, and I could see in the mirror I was starting to go grey at the sides.  It was far too early in my life for this, but I expect it had something to do with my employment.

I didn’t recognize the man who looked back at me.

It was certainly not Alan McKenzie, nor was there any part of that fifteen-year-old who had made the decision to exact revenge.

Given a choice; I would not have gone down this path.

Or so I kept telling myself each time a little more of my soul was sold to the devil.

I was Barry Gamble.

I was Lenny Buckman.

I was Jimmy Hosen.

I was anyone but the person I wanted to be.

That’s what I told Louise, standing in front of her grave, and trying to apologize for all the harm, all the people I’d killed for that one rash decision.  If she was still alive she would be horrified, and ashamed.

Head bowed, tears streamed down my face.

God had gone on holiday and wasn’t there to hand out any forgiveness.  Not that day.  Not any day.

 

New York, New Years Eve.

I was at the end of a long tour, dragged out of a holiday and back into the fray, chasing down another scumbag.  They were scumbags, and I’d become an automaton hunting them down and dispatching them to what McTavish called a better place.

This time I failed.

A few drinks to blot out the failure, a blonde woman who pushed my buttons, a room in a hotel, any hotel, it was like being on the merry-go-round, round and round and round…

Her name was Silvia or Sandra, or someone I’d met before, but couldn’t quite place her.  It could be an enemy agent for all I knew or all I cared right then.

I was done.

I’d had enough.

I gave her the gun.

I begged her to kill me.

She didn’t.

Instead, I simply cried, letting the pent up emotion loose after being suppressed for so long, and she stayed with me, holding me close, and saying I was safe, that she knew exactly how I felt.

How could she?  No one could know what I’d been through.

I remembered her name after she had gone.

Amanda.

I remembered she had an imperfection in her right eye.

Someone else had the same imperfection.

I couldn’t remember who that was.

Not then.

 

I had a dingy flat in Kensington, a place that I rarely stayed in if I could help it.  After five-star hotel rooms, it made me feel shabby.

The end of another mission, I was on my way home, the underground, a bus, and then a walk.

It was late.

People were spilling out of the pub after the last drinks.  Most in good spirits, others slightly more boisterous.

A loud-mouthed chap bumped into me, the sort who had one too many, and was ready to take on all comers.

He turned on me, “Watch where you’re going, you fool.”

Two of his friends dragged him away.  He shrugged them off, squared up.

I punched him hard, in the stomach, and he fell backwards onto the ground.  I looked at his two friends.  “Take him home before someone makes mincemeat out of him.”

They grabbed his arms, lifted him off the ground and took him away.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a woman, early thirties, quite attractive, but very, very drunk.  She staggered from the bar, bumped into me, and finished up sitting on the side of the road.

I looked around to see where her friends were.  The exodus from the pub was over and the few nearby were leaving to go home.

She was alone, drunk, and by the look of her, unable to move.

I sat beside her.  “Where are your friends?”

“Dunno.”

“You need help?”

She looked up, and sideways at me.  She didn’t look the sort who would get in this state.  Or maybe she was, I was a terrible judge of women.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Nobody.”  I was exactly how I felt.

“Well Mr Nobody, I’m drunk, and I don’t care.  Just leave me here to rot.”

She put her head back between her knees, and it looked to me she was trying to stop the spinning sensation in her head.

Been there before, and it’s not a good feeling.

“Where are your friends?” I asked again.

“Got none.”

“Perhaps I should take you home.”

“I have no home.”

“You don’t look like a homeless person.  If I’m not mistaken, those shoes are worth more than my weekly salary.”  I’d seen them advertised, in the airline magazine, don’t ask me why the ad caught my attention.

She lifted her head and looked at me again.  “You a smart fucking arse are you?”

“I have my moments.”

“Have them somewhere else.”

She rested her head against my shoulder.  We were the only two left in the street, and suddenly in darkness when the proprietor turned off the outside lights.

“Take me home,” she said suddenly.

“Where is your place?”

“Don’t have one.  Take me to your place.”

“You won’t like it.”

“I’m drunk.  What’s not to like until tomorrow.”

I helped her to her feet.  “You have a name?”

“Charlotte.”

 

The wedding was in a small church.  We had been away for a weekend in the country, somewhere in the Cotswolds, and found this idyllic spot.  Graves going back to the dawn of time, a beautiful garden tended by the vicar and his wife, an astonishing vista over hills and down dales.

On a spring afternoon with the sun, the flowers, and the peacefulness of the country.

I had two people at the wedding, the best man, Bradley, and my boss, Watkins.

Charlotte had her sisters Melissa and Isobel, and Isobel’s husband Giovanni, and their daughter Felicity.

And one more person who was as mysterious as she was attractive, a rather interesting combination as she was well over retirement age.  She arrived late and left early.

Aunt Agatha.

She looked me up and down with what I’d call a withering look.  “There’s more to you than meets the eye,” she said enigmatically.

“Likewise I’m sure,” I said.  It earned me an elbow in the ribs from Charlotte.  It was clear she feared this woman.

“Why did you come,” Charlotte asked.

“You know why.”

Agatha looked at me.  “I like you.  Take care of my granddaughter.  You do not want me for an enemy.”

OK, now she officially scared me.

She thrust a cheque into my hand, smiled, and left.

“Who is she,” I asked after we watched her depart.

“Certainly not my fairy godmother.”

Charlotte never mentioned her again.

 

Zurich in summer, not exactly my favourite place.

Instead of going to visit her sister Isobel, we stayed at a hotel in Beethovenstrasse and Isobel and Felicity came to us.  Her husband was not with her this time.

Felicity was three or four and looked very much like her mother.  She also looked very much like Charlotte, and I’d remarked on it once before and it received a sharp rebuke.

We’d been twice before, and rather than talk to her sister, Charlotte spent her time with Felicity, and they were, together, like old friends.  For so few visits they had a remarkable rapport.

I had not broached the subject of children with Charlotte, not after one such discussion where she had said she had no desire to be a mother.  It had not been a subject before and wasn’t once since.

Perhaps like all Aunts, she liked the idea of playing with a child for a while and then give it back.

Felicity was curious as to who I was, but never ventured too close.  I believed a child could sense the evil in adults and had seen through my facade of friendliness.  We were never close.

But…

This time, when observing the two together, something quite out of left field popped into my head.  It was not possible, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought she looked like my mother.

And Charlotte had seen me looking in their direction.  “You seem distracted,” she said.

“I was just remembering my mother.  Odd moment, haven’t done so for a very long time.”

“Why now?”  I think she had a look of concern on her face.

“Her birthday, I guess,” I said, the first excuse I could think of.

Another look and I was wrong.  She looked like Isobel or Charlotte, or if I wanted to believe it possible, Melissa too.

 

I was crying, tears streaming down my face.

I was in pain, searing pain from my lower back stretching down into my legs, and I was barely able to breathe.

It was like coming up for air.

It was like Snow White bringing Prince Charming back to life.  I could feel what I thought was a gentle kiss and tears dropping on my cheeks, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Charlotte slowly lifting her head, a hand gently stroking the hair off my forehead.

And in a very soft voice, she said, “Hi.”

I could not speak, but I think I smiled.  It was the girl with the imperfection in her right eye.  Everything fell into place, and I knew, in that instant that we were irrevocably meant to be together.

“Welcome back.”

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

onelastlookcoverfinal2

An excerpt from “What Sets Us Apart”, a mystery with a twist

See excerpt from the story below, just a taste of what’s in store…

http://amzn.to/2Eryfth

whatsetscover

McCallister was old school, a man who would most likely fit in perfectly campaigning on the battlefields of Europe during the Second World War. He’d been like a fish out of water in the army, post-Falklands, and while he retired a hero, he still felt he’d more to give.

He’d applied and was accepted as head of a SWAT team, and, watching him now as he and his men disembarked from the truck in almost military precision, a look passed between Annette, the police liaison officer, and I that said she’d seen it all before. I know I had.

There was a one in four chance his team would be selected for this operation, and she had been hoping it would be one of the other three. While waiting for them to arrive she filled me in on the various teams. His was the least co-operative, and the more likely to make ad-hoc decisions rather than adhere to the plan, or any orders that may come from the officer in charge.

This, she said quite bluntly, was going to end badly.

I still had no idea why Prendergast instructed me to attend the scene of what looked to be a normal domestic operation, but as the nominated expert in the field in these types of situations, it was fairly clear he wasn’t taking any chances. It was always a matter of opinion between us, and generally I lost.

In this case, it was an anonymous report identifying what the authorities believed were explosives in one of the dockside sheds where explosives were not supposed to be.

The only reason why the report was given any credence was the man, while not identifying himself by name, said he’d been an explosive expert once and recognized the boxes. That could mean anything, but the Chief Constable was a cautious man.

With his men settled and preparing their weapons, McCallister came over to the command post, not much more than the SUV my liaison and I arrived in, with weapons, bulletproof vests, and rolls of tape to cordon off the area afterward. We both had coffee, steaming in the cold early morning air. Dawn was slowly approaching and although rain had been forecast it had yet to arrive.

A man by the name of Benson was in charge. He too had groaned when he saw McCallister.

“A fine morning for it.” McCallister was the only enthusiastic one here.

He didn’t say what ‘it’ was, but I thought it might eventually be mayhem.

“Let’s hope the rain stays away. It’s going to be difficult enough without it,” Benson said, rubbing his hands together. We had been waiting for the SWAT team to arrive, and another team to take up their position under the wharf, and who was in the final stages of securing their position.

While we were waiting we drew up the plan. I’d go in first to check on what we were dealing with, and what type of explosives. The SWAT team, in the meantime, were to ensure all the exits to the shed were covered. When I gave the signal, they were to enter and secure the building. We were not expecting anyone inside or out, and no movement had been detected in the last hour since our arrival and deployment.

“What’s the current situation?”

“I’ve got eyes on the building, and a team coming in from the waterside, underneath. Its slow progress, but they’re nearly there. Once they’re in place, we’re sending McKenzie in.”

He looked in my direction.

“With due respect sir, shouldn’t it be one of us?” McCallister glared at me with the contempt that only a decorated military officer could.

“No. I have orders from above, much higher than I care to argue with, so, McCallister, no gung-ho heroics for the moment. Just be ready to move on my command, and make sure you have three teams at the exit points, ready to secure the building.”

McCallister opened his mouth, no doubt to question those orders, but instead closed it again. “Yes sir,” he muttered and turned away heading back to his men.

“You’re not going to have much time before he storms the battlements,” Benson quietly said to me, a hint of exasperation in his tone. “I’m dreading the paperwork.”

It was exactly what my liaison officer said when she saw McCallister arriving.

The water team sent their ‘in position’ signal, and we were ready to go.

In the hour or so we’d been on site nothing had stirred, no arrivals, no departures, and no sign anyone was inside, but that didn’t mean we were alone. Nor did it mean I was going to walk in and see immediately what was going on. If it was a cache of explosives then it was possible the building was booby-trapped in any number of ways, there could be sentries or guards, and they had eyes on us, or it might be a false alarm.

I was hoping for the latter.

I put on the bulletproof vest, thinking it was a poor substitute for full battle armor against an exploding bomb, but we were still treating this as a ‘suspected’ case. I noticed my liaison officer was pulling on her bulletproof vest too.

“You don’t have to go. This is my party, not yours,” I said.

“The Chief Constable told me to stick to you like glue, sir.”

I looked at Benson. “Talk some sense into her please, this is not a kindergarten outing.”

He shrugged. Seeing McCallister had taken all the fight out of him. “Orders are orders. If that’s what the Chief Constable requested …”

Madness. I glared at her, and she gave me a wan smile. “Stay behind me then, and don’t do anything stupid.”

“Believe me, I won’t be.” She pulled out and checked her weapon, chambering the first round. It made a reassuring sound.

Suited up, weapons readied, a last sip of the coffee in a stomach that was already churning from nerves and tension, I looked at the target, one hundred yards distant and thought it was going to be the longest hundred yards I’d ever traversed. At least for this week.

A swirling mist rolled in and caused a slight change in plans.

Because the front of the buildings was constantly illuminated by large overhead arc lamps, my intention had been to approach the building from the rear where there was less light and more cover. Despite the lack of movement, if there were explosives in that building, there’d be ‘enemy’ surveillance somewhere, and, after making that assumption, I believed it was going to be easier and less noticeable to use the darkness as a cover.

It was a result of the consultation, and studying the plans of the warehouse, plans that showed three entrances, the main front hangar type doors, a side entrance for truck entry and exit and a small door in the rear, at the end of an internal passage leading to several offices. I also assumed it was the exit used when smokers needed a break. Our entry would be by the rear door or failing that, the side entrance where a door was built into the larger sliding doors. In both cases, the locks would not present a problem.

The change in the weather made the approach shorter, and given the density of the mist now turning into a fog, we were able to approach by the front, hugging the walls, and moving quickly while there was cover. I could feel the dampness of the mist and shivered more than once.

It was nerves more than the cold.

I could also feel rather than see the presence of Annette behind me, and once felt her breath on my neck when we stopped for a quick reconnaissance.

It was the same for McCallister’s men. I could feel them following us, quickly and quietly, and expected, if I turned around, to see him breathing down my neck too.

It added to the tension.

My plan was still to enter by the back door.

We slipped up the alley between the two sheds to the rear corner and stopped. I heard a noise coming from the rear of the building, and the light tap on the shoulder told me Annette had heard it too. I put my hand up to signal her to wait, and as a swirl of mist rolled in, I slipped around the corner heading towards where I’d last seen the glow of a cigarette.

The mist cleared, and we saw each other at the same time. He was a bearded man in battle fatigues, not the average dockside security guard.

He was quick, but my slight element of surprise was his undoing, and he was down and unconscious in less than a few seconds with barely a sound beyond the body hitting the ground. Zip ties secured his hands and legs, and tape his mouth. Annette joined me a minute after securing him.

A glance at the body then me, “I can see why they, whoever they are, sent you.”

She’d asked who I worked for, and I didn’t answer. It was best she didn’t know.

“Stay behind me,” I said, more urgency in my tone. If there was one, there’d be another.

Luck was with us so far. A man outside smoking meant no booby traps on the back door, and quite possibly there’d be none inside. But it indicated there were more men inside, and if so, it appeared they were very well trained. If that were the case, they would be formidable opponents.

The fear factor increased exponentially.

I slowly opened the door and looked in. A pale light shone from within the warehouse itself, one that was not bright enough to be detected from outside. None of the offices had lights on, so it was possible they were vacant. I realized then they had blacked out the windows. Why hadn’t someone checked this?

Once inside, the door closed behind us, progress was slow and careful. She remained directly behind me, gun ready to shoot anything that moved. I had a momentary thought for McCallister and his men, securing the perimeter.

At the end of the corridor, the extent of the warehouse stretched before us. The pale lighting made it seem like a vast empty cavern, except for a long trestle table along one side, and, behind it, stacks of wooden crates, some opened. It looked like a production line.

To get to the table from where we were was a ten-yard walk in the open. There was no cover. If we stuck to the walls, there was equally no cover and a longer walk.

We needed a distraction.

As if on cue, the two main entrances disintegrated into flying shrapnel accompanied by a deafening explosion that momentarily disoriented both Annette and I. Through the smoke and dust kicked up I saw three men appear from behind the wooden crates, each with what looked like machine guns, spraying bullets in the direction of the incoming SWAT members.

They never had a chance, cut down before they made ten steps into the building.

By the time I’d recovered, my head heavy, eyes watering and ears still ringing, I took several steps towards them, managing to take down two of the gunmen but not the third.

I heard a voice, Annette’s I think, yell out, “Oh, God, he’s got a trigger,” just before another explosion, though all I remember in that split second was a bright flash, the intense heat, something very heavy smashing into my chest knocking the wind out of me, and then the sensation of flying, just before I hit the wall.

I spent four weeks in an induced coma, three months being stitched back together and another six learning to do all those basic actions everyone took for granted. It was twelve months almost to the day when I was released from the hospital, physically, except for a few alterations required after being hit by shrapnel, looking the same as I always had.

But mentally? The document I’d signed on release said it all, ‘not fit for active duty; discharged’.

It was in the name of David Cheney. For all intents and purposes, Alistair McKenzie was killed in that warehouse, and for the first time ever, an agent left the Department, the first to retire alive.

I was not sure I liked the idea of making history.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2020

“Echoes From The Past”, a past buried, but not deep enough


What happens when your past finally catches up with you?

Christmas is just around the corner, a time to be with family. For Will Mason, an orphan since he was fourteen, it is a time for reflection on what his life could have been, and what it could be.

Until a chance encounter brings back to life the reasons for his twenty years of self-imposed exile from a life only normal people could have. From that moment Will’s life slowly starts to unravel and it’s obvious to him it’s time to move on.

This time, however, there is more at stake.

Will has broken his number one rule, don’t get involved.

With his nemesis, Eddie Jamieson, suddenly within reach, and a blossoming relationship with an office colleague, Maria, about to change everything, Will has to make a choice. Quietly leave, or finally, make a stand.

But as Will soon discovers, when other people are involved there is going to be terrible consequences no matter what choice he makes.

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That helicopter story that kept me awake – Episode 39

Our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.

The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because of the enemy, if it was the enemy, simply because it didn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.

Now, it appears, his problems stem from another operation he participated in, and because of it, he has now been roped into what might be called a suicide mission.

 

“Are there?  How many should I have?”

The only way he could know there was not a full complement as if he had been told by someone how many people were in our group from the outset.  I looked at Jacobi, and he shrugged.

“This is not a good time to be playing games, Sergeant James.”

The guards gripped their weapons a little tighter and looked ready to use them.

“The only one playing games here would be you.  It would be irrelevant if I had more or I had fewer people here because you have more than enough to cover us, and then some.  But you would agree it would be imprudent for me to put all my eggs in one basket as it were, and yes, there are several others, but they are waiting for me to call them, further down the track.  Not to put too fine a point on it, distrust works both ways.  We don’t come back, I can assure you, your losses will be bigger than ours.  Oh, and a word of advice, don’t go looking for them, not unless you want good men to die needlessly.”

Tough talk, and could get us killed, but I was hoping that until he had the diamonds in his hands, he would humor me.  A minute or so passed where I assumed he was making a calculation on what the odds were, then he shrugged.  There was merit in what I’d told him.  Monroe and Shurl had plenty of ammunition and would have a foxhole that wouldn’t be over-run or penetrated.

“I think you might be right, so let’s not get bogged down in an argument that’s going nowhere.  We have what you want, and you have what we want.  Let’s go inside and talk.”

Was that a sigh of relief moment?  Perhaps.  But it was clear he needed us out of the way before his men could search the cars.  I was happy to let him think he had the upper hand.

“Lead the way.”

We all filed into the building and sat down around a large table.  There were bottles of water out, and we might have drunk from them but I could see the seal had been broken on min so it looked like we would be going thirsty.

The commander drank from his, no doubt as a gesture that the water was safe.  None of my people were buying it.

“I’ll kick it off,” I said.  “Are our people in good health?”

“Of course.  Healthy enough to walk out of here of their own accord.  Did you bring the compensation with you?”

“I did.”

“Can I see it?”

“Can I see our people.”

Friendly, and time-consuming double talk.  I could see he was waiting impatiently.  “All in good time.  “Did you have any trouble getting here?” he asked casually.  “I heard there were some local militias on the road collecting road taxes earlier today.”

“If there was, we didn’t see any.  Smooth run, except for the state of the roads.  I hope the road taxes those people are collecting are to fix the roads.”

He smiled.  “It is what it is.  This is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not the United States of America.  Things are done differently here.  We put the people first, and the roads second.”

There was a discreet knock on the door, followed by a cowering man coming into the room and walking up behind the commander.  He took a few seconds to whisper into his ear, during which the commander’s expression turned very dark.

I had to assume that they had found all the weapons we had left for them to find, and not done a very close inspection to find those we did not want them to find.  It was a bold assumption and could make a difference once we left, and if we were attacked.  I was sure that was part of the message the man had relayed to his commander.

The man almost ran out of the building, slamming the door behind him.

The commander looked at me.  “Where are the diamonds?”

That was as direct as he could get.

“At this point, that’s for me to know until I’m assured you intend to honor your part of the agreement.  Searching our cars for the diamonds tells me you are not a man to be trusted, and, you should have realized in making that discovery, you’re not dealing with fools.”

The dark expression eased, and he tried to look like the man who held all the cards.  He probably did, but it would be interesting to see to what extent he would press his advantage.  We had nothing to lose, though it didn’t send a very good message to the team that I was willing to sacrifice them.  This was after all supposed to be a suicide mission.

“What’s to stop me from just shooting your people one by one until you tell me.”

“The same reason I told you at the gate.  You will lose a lot more than I will.  Something you might not be aware of is that the people who sent me have control over satellites.  You might not be familiar with satellite technology, but be assured that we are being observed, and have been on this little odyssey.  It also means that they, sitting in a bunker somewhere in the world, also have access to nasty drones, you know, the sort that leaves craters where villages and settlements once were.  This place would not withstand a direct hit, and there would be no one left alive after it.  Killing any or all of us will incur wrath you really don’t want to deal with.  Put simply, if I don’t drive out of here with my people within half an hour this whole area will become an uninhabitable crater.”

Bamfield had said as one option, not that he could order such a strike, was to threaten them with a drone strike.  I hadn’t done that in as many words, but the commander looked as though he got the inference.

“You could do that anyway.”

“I could, but that’s not the way I work.  For some odd reason. The people I work for seem to think you might be useful to them in the future, and Jacobi here will be happy to stay and talk about it.  Now, the clock is ticking.”

He took a moment, then stood.  “Let’s go meet your people then.”

 

Ⓒ Charles Heath  2020

“Sunday in New York”, a romantic adventure that’s not a walk in the park!

“Sunday in New York” is ultimately a story about trust, and what happens when a marriage is stretched to its limits.

When Harry Steele attends a lunch with his manager, Barclay, to discuss a promotion that any junior executive would accept in a heartbeat, it is the fact his wife, Alison, who previously professed her reservations about Barclay, also agreed to attend, that casts a small element of doubt in his mind.

From that moment, his life, in the company, in deciding what to do, his marriage, his very life, spirals out of control.

There is no one big factor that can prove Harry’s worst fears, that his marriage is over, just a number of small, interconnecting events, when piled on top of each other, points to a cataclysmic end to everything he had believed in.

Trust is lost firstly in his best friend and mentor, Andy, who only hints of impending disaster, Sasha, a woman whom he saved, and who appears to have motives of her own, and then in his wife, Alison, as he discovered piece by piece damning evidence she is about to leave him for another man.

Can we trust what we see with our eyes or trust what we hear?

Haven’t we all jumped to conclusions at least once in our lives?

Can Alison, a woman whose self-belief and confidence is about to be put to the ultimate test, find a way of proving their relationship is as strong as it has ever been?

As they say in the classics, read on!

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I go missing for a day, and…

It’s like dying a literary death.

The silence is deafening.

It seems, after a lot of trial and error, trying this that and the other, I’ve discovered that you only get out of social media what you put into it.

And it means that unless you are on it 24 hours a day, every day, spruiking, or whatever it is we writers are supposed to do promoting ourselves and our work, nothing happens.

Don’t get me wrong, there are those who are raging successes, and I am happy for them.

But for us living on the fringe, and there is quite a lot of us, trying valiantly to reach the public eyes, the battle is just that, a battle.

When do you get time to write?

Is it a choice between writing, or trying to garner support and a following?

The authors who are published by the large publishers will tell you that it is the only way to become an author, where all of the marketing is done by the publisher and all they have to do is put in an appearance and pocket the royalties.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

But when I find that happy medium between marketing and writing, I’ll let you know.

Until then, I guess there will be more days like today, and that battle going on in your head that is telling you to give up, it’s never going to get any better.

Maybe not.

But give up? Not today, nor tomorrow.

After all, we live in a world where anything is possible.

“Uncanny good luck shines upon me…” – a short story


I never did take advice very seriously.  Especially when they were issued by old man Taggard, a man of some mystery that we all, adults and children alike wanted to know about.

Everyone in the street knew him as he had lived in the almost derelict mansion at the end of the cul-de-sac forever, way longer than anyone else in the neighborhood had.  In fact, it was rumored he had owned all the land around and sold it off bit by bit over time, the reason why there were so many houses of varying age in the estate.

Ours was one of the older houses, a few doors up from it.  We were close enough to observe Taggard’s habit, like sitting gon the porch on an old swing chair in the afternoons, to the late-night wanderings in the street.  Some said he was accompanied by the ghost of his long-dead wife, which led to stories being told of the house he lived in being haunted.

As children, we had been brought up on a diet of TV shows such as ‘The Munsters’ and ‘The Addams Family’, and had invented our own make-believe show called ‘The Taggard Mansion’, the house with ghosts, and the neighborhood center for strange goings-on.

And as children were wont to do, we had to ‘investigate’.

There was a ‘gang’ even though we didn’t refer to it as such, about seven of us who lived in nearby houses, and all of whom had very active imaginations.  We also met in the cubby house out the back of our house to plan forays to find out whether the rumors were true.  The thing is we never got very far as he seemed to know when we were sneaking in and scared us off, so for years, the rumors remained just that, rumors.

But as grown-ups, and by that I mean, middle teens, our plans became bolder and more sophisticated, based on a whole new breed of TV shows, where the seemingly impossible was no longer that.  And Andy Boswell, my older brother’s best friend, his father was a private detective, or so he told us, and he had managed to ‘secure’ some of his father’s tools of the trade; a camera on the end of a wire that could connect to a cell phone, a listening device that could hear through walls, and in-ear communicators.  We could now, if we were close enough, see under doors, and hear if anyone was in.  We could all keep in touch, though I couldn’t see how this would help.

But a plan was formulated.  All seven of us had a role to play.  My brother Ron and Delilah, his girlfriend, were taking point, whatever that meant, Andy and I were going to take point, while Jack, Jill, and Kim were going to run distraction.  The theory was, they’d make enough noise to keep the old man occupied chasing them.  No one had been inside the house, ever.  Andy and I were going to be the first.

Andy had drawn up a plan and it was up on the wall.  He had charted the house, and had a very accurate picture of the house’s footprint, where doors and windows were, likely entrance points, including a hatchway down into what he assumed was a basement, though he preferred to call it the dungeon, and a layout of the grounds.  Apparently under the undergrowth were paths and gardens, even a large fountain that once graced the grounds of the three-story mansion made of sandstone, and built sometime during the middle of the 1800s.

Andy had done some research, mostly from old newspapers, and also discovered that the old man had once been married, they had a half dozen children, three of whom had died, the others scattered around the world.  It explained why no one ever visited the place.

The distraction team would be going in through the front gate, easy enough because it had come off its hinges and just needed a shove to open.  The old man usually emerged from the house via the driveway, or what was once a drive that cars could enter one side of the property, stop under a huge canopy, and emerge onto the road further along.  But it’s overgrown stare, the width of the pathway was now about six feet.  The fact it was once an amazing feature was the roadside lights, now all but disappearing behind the undergrowth.

Andy had found a photograph in the paper of it, and it had looked magnificent, as had the gardens, the overhanging canopy, and all the lights.  To think such magnificence was now lost.  And having seen it for what it once was, it was not hard to imagine any number of scenarios, my favorite, rescuing a damsel in distress from the tower.  Yes, it even had a tower, two, in fact, at each end of the house.  My brother always said I had an overactive imagination.

Andy and I would be going in by the less used car exit, and heading for the left side of the building where Andy said was several floor-to-ceiling windows that looked to him like French doors.  Of course, none of us knew what French doors were, and my brother cut Andy short when he tried to explain.

Failing that, there was a door at the rear that seemed to be open, and we’d try that next.  We would get into position, advise the distraction team, and the operation would be a go.  The only debate was what time of the day were we going to do it.  My brother preferred late in the afternoon.  Andy said it was better at dawn, or soon after if we were looking for maximum confusion of the target.

Dawn, confusion, tactics, target, Andy was in his element.  He was going to be a spy when he grew up.  My brother said he would never grow up, but then, my brother said I was a dreamer and would never amount to anything.  We ignored his advice, well, we pretty much ignored everything he said.

We were going in at dawn.

At 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, we gathered at the cubby house ready for action.  We all took a communicator and put it in our ears, and then had fun saying stupid stuff, and hearing it through the earpieces.  It was weird but added an exciting element to the adventure.  I know my heart was beating faster in anticipation.  Andy was pretending to be cool and failing.  I suspected my brother and Delilah had other plans when we left them alone in the cubby house.  The distraction team was ready to go.

Shortly after the sun came up, it was cool and the air still.  It was going to be a hot day, and that first hour, everything was almost perfect.  It seemed a waste to do anything but let the early morning serenity settle over us.  Not today.  Andy and I went to our position, slowly feeling our way through the bushes, taking bearings from the light poles, and every now and then seeing the guttering and what looked to be a concrete path.  Beyond that was once a garden, and I tried, more than once, to imagine what it was like.

In my ear I could hear the others in the distraction team setting up at the start of the driveway, ready to go.  We reached our position, about twenty feet from the so-called French windows, the view into the house blocked by curtains, but beyond that, what we could see was darkness inside the house.  Taking in the whole side of the house, there were no lights on behind any of the windows.  If we didn’t know better, we could have assumed the house was empty.

I heard Andy say, “Ready.  Start making noise.”

A minute later we could both hear the distraction team in the distance and through the communicators.  It took two minutes before we heard the old man, yelling, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  Their job done, getting him out of the house, all they had to do was retreat.

Time for Andy and I to go.

Working on the basis that no one else was at the house, and the fact we had no evidence there was, we were not overly worried about making a stealthy approach.  I could hear in my earpiece, the gasping of those in the distraction team having just made it outside the gate, and to tell us the old man had stopped at the gate.  I doubt he had been running, but his yelling was just as effective.

That had stopped, and a sort of silence fell over the area.

We were now at the French doors, and Andy produced another tool that he’d forgotten to tell us about, a lock pick.  The fact it didn’t take long to unlock the door told me he was either very talented, or the lock was old and presented no problems.  Either way, he opened the door and ushered me in.

I brushed the curtains aside for him to follow, then moved in as he followed, closing the door behind him.

I’d taken five steps before I heard a woman’s voice say.  “Uncanny good luck shines upon me.  My knights in shining armor.  You’ve come to rescue me, no?”

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Writing about writing a book – Day 22

More of Bill’s backstory, and, if it’s possible, I’m beginning to like this guy.

I suspect, for him as well as many others, it wasn’t easy, but in war zones, it’s either hot or cold, but never any pleasant in any weather conditions, and perhaps if there was a possibility of a fine, balmy, day, there would be no time to enjoy it.

Sleep was difficult. 

Sleep was always difficult, if not impossible. 

Whilst I had lived in barracks, in the tropics as part of my training and acclimatization, it was nothing like this.  Nothing could have prepared me for the endless, oppressive heat.

It started from the day the plane had landed on the tarmac at Saigon airport, the crew opened the door to the cabin, and we walked down the stairs.  The heat came from above, and from the tarmac below.  We were soaked in sweat by the time we reached the buildings.

And it was difficult not to be exhausted, even if you were lucky enough to get a few hours sleep.  That constant feeling of exhaustion was the biggest enemy, and what caused many of the unnecessary deaths.  In the end, for many, it was just too much.  For me, it was training that kept me alive, because of that little voice in my head that kept me vigilant.

That and a keen sense of self-preservation.

Our platoon was still recovering from the shock of seeing the death of two of our mates the previous day.  Although in the camp only a week, already it felt like a year.  We’d been sent out on a patrol, trying to find a group of the enemy who was responsible for cutting one of the supply lines, and it hadn’t taken long for us to realize we didn’t really know if it was the Viet Cong or the people we were supposed to be protecting.  They all looked the same to me, and we had to rely on our South Vietnamese Army liaison to ensure we didn’t shoot the wrong people.

After an eventless day, if you discounted the rain, the heat, and the scares, the Lieutenant ordered us to make camp, just before darkness set in.  We had not seen the enemy, and, as I was finally getting to understand, we probably wouldn’t until they were prepared to show themselves.

At that moment of maximum unpreparedness, when our attention was diverted, and after a long and debilitating day, they chose to attack.

I had no doubt they had been tracking us, and for quite some distance.  I had that effect of hair standing up on the back of my neck.  It actually saved me from getting shot.

The attack killed three of our men and shattered our confidence.

No one slept that night, either from fear the attackers would return, or because we were just plain terrified.  I volunteered for guard duty.  It was easier to be up and about instead of on a camp stretcher staring at the roof of the tent waiting for the inevitable.

Seeing our mates killed so horrifically, before our eyes, had the desired effect.  In the beginning, we expected it to be a walk in the park, with some hoping that we would just stumble around in the jungle for a week or so, then go back to the camp for a well-earned rest.  None had counted on the reality of war, or the fact some of us might die.  Some were even hoping they would not have to shoot their gun.

All of those illusions had now gone after three months had passed, and as reality set in.

Some had sobbed openly, such was their preparedness.  I had to say, I was a little more prepared, but had hoped for a little more time before the battle.  And it surprised me how calm I was when all around me it was chaos.

“Bastards,” Killer muttered.

We called him ‘Killer’ because it was the nickname the Army had given him.  We were sharing the guard duty and had spoken briefly over the watch, but up till then, the silence had stretched over an hour or so.  It didn’t take long for anyone to realize he was a man of few words.

He’d been in the regular army for years and asked for the posting.  He’d made Sergeant several times, only to lose those same stripes for fighting, usually after R&R and a bout of heavy drinking.  Now assigned to our platoon to lend his experience, the conscripts were expecting him to ‘look after’ them.  Other than myself and the Lieutenant, he was the only other regular soldier.  Unfortunately for them, he hated both conscripts and the Viet Cong in varying degrees, and depending on his mood there was little tolerance left for the rest of us.

“The people who sent us here or the people trying to kill us?” I asked before I realized I’d spoken.

I didn’t hear the reply, the skies opening up with another torrential downpour that lasted for about five minutes, and going as fast as it came.  When the sun finally came up, it would make the atmosphere steamy, hot, and unbearable.  It was quite warm now, and I was feeling both uncomfortable, and fatigued.

Killer looked just as stoic as he had before the rain.  He looked at me.  “Damn weather.  Worse than home.”

“Scotland?”

“Scapa Flow, Kirkwall.  I should have been an engineer on ships like my father, but I was too stupid.  Joined the Army, finished up here.  What’s your excuse?”

“Square peg in a round hole.  The army seems to handle us in its stride.”  It was more or less the truth.  I joined the Army to get away from my parents.

“That it does.  That it does.”

The rain came and went, during which the rest of the camp roused and went about its business.  It had been a long night for some, still getting over the shock of the attack, and the ever-pervading thought the enemy was still out there, biding their time.  It would be, for them, a waiting game, waiting for the conditions to wear us down, and lose concentration as inevitably we would.

Certainly, by the time we were relieved from sentry duty, I felt I was in no condition to match wits with a donkey, let alone the enemy on his own home ground.  When I stumbled over to the mess area and looked at the tired and haggard looks on the faces of the platoon, I realized that went for all of us.

Killer and I managed to get about an hour’s rest before the call came to move out, rain or no rain, and after a breakfast to make anyone ill, we left.  For hours it rained.  No one spoke as we strained to listen over the rain spattering on the undergrowth, all the time expecting the unexpected.  That was the benefit of the surprise attack; we no longer took for granted we would be safe.

Water gathered in pools along the trail, hiding any chance of seeing landmines.  Rainwater and sweat ran into our eyes, making it difficult to see.  Water leaked everywhere, making it very uncomfortable.  This was not a war; this was utter stupidity.

I was about to remark on the futility of it all to the Lieutenant, who had taken the lead, when one second he was talking to me and the next he crashed to the ground, a sniper’s bullet killing him instantly.   Someone yelled “Contact” and we hit the ground, bullets flying all around us. 

Too late, I thought, as I felt the hit of what seemed to be a large rock, then the searing pain in my leg, just as I hit the ground…

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2021

‘The Devil You Don’t’ – A beta reader’s view

It could be said that of all the women one could meet, whether contrived or by sheer luck, what are the odds it would turn out to be the woman who was being paid a very large sum to kill you.

John Pennington is a man who may be lucky in business, but not so lucky in love. He has just broken up with Phillipa Sternhaven, the woman he thought was the one, but relatives and circumstances, and perhaps because she was a ‘princess’, may also have contributed to the end result.

So, what do you do when you are heartbroken?

That is a story that slowly unfolds, from the first meeting with his nemesis on Lake Geneva, all the way to a hotel room in Sorrento, where he learns the shattering truth.

What should have been solace after disappointment, turns out to be something else entirely, and from that point, everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

He suddenly realizes his so-called friend Sebastian has not exactly told him the truth about a small job he asked him to do, the woman he is falling in love with is not quite who she says she is, and he is caught in the middle of a war between two men who consider people becoming collateral damage as part of their business.

The story paints the characters cleverly displaying all their flaws and weaknesses. The locations add to the story at times taking me back down memory lane, especially to Venice where, in those back streets I confess it’s not all that hard to get lost.

All in all a thoroughly entertaining story with, for once, a satisfying end.

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